Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Bluebell Walk to Capel

Start of the walk, at Somerhill House

Every year round about the end of April and the beginning of May, the local woods are enhanced by a deep blue carpet of bluebells. These woodland perennials take advantage of the gap between the trees starting to come into bud, and the time when they carry a full canopy of leaves, in order to flower and show their blue finery in all its glory. What better time then to be out for a stroll in the local woods for a close-up view of this annual display of nature at its best? And when there’s a pub involved, at some stage of the proceedings, then there are few things finer than being out in the gorgeous Kent countryside.

With a walk which takes in one of the best display of bluebells to be seen locally, and which includes a stopover in one of the best country pubs in this part of the world, then what’s not to like? I received an email last week, from my friend Don, inviting me to join him, plus a couple of other mutual friends, on a walk to the Dovecote Inn at Capel. This is a pub slightly off the beaten track which is not that easy to reach by public transport. Seeing as it is renowned for serving an interesting range of gravity-served beer, it is a pub I would not want to drive to, as the thought of sitting there in the midst of all this good beer, nursing a single, low-gravity pint, followed by some unappetising soft-drinks, is not one which appeals to me. The fact that the Dovecote is easily reached by foot, from Tonbridge is therefore a bonus, made all the better by a route which takes us through some stunning bluebell carpeted woods.

I actually think this natural display will peak next weekend or even the one after, rather than this one, but there is a CAMRA branch outing to the Chequers at Laddingford, which is holding a cheese and real ale festival, in a week’s time, so it had to be this weekend or not at all. Regrettably I shall be missing next weekend’s outing, as I am Norfolk-bound, so in a way it was doubly good to be going out on this bright, but slightly chilly Sunday.

The four of us met up outside the Vauxhall Inn, a large Chef & Brewer establishment on the edge of Tonbridge. Unfortunately the bright sunshine of the day before had been replaced by cloud which, according to the weatherman, had rolled in from the North Sea. It did break from time to time, but there was a cold north-easterly wind blowing, which cooled things down a bit, even when the sun did come out. Our well-trodden route and familiar route took us up through the grounds of the imposing Somerhill House; the former home of the d’Avigdor Goldsmid family, which now houses a number of upmarket, independent, fee-paying schools.

Passing along the stonewall-lined sunken lane, designed to allow estate workers to pass by out of sight of the house, we walked through an area of undulating woodland, before coming out into open farmland. A couple of fields of oil-seed rape, which had just come into flower, greeted us; a poor substitute for the former orchard and the avenue of alder trees which used to stand here. Eventually we reached and crossed the busy B2017 Five Oak Green Road before heading off in a southerly direction into woodland where we knew there should be bluebells aplenty.

Dovecote Inn, Capel
My predictions, alas, proved only too right, although to be fair my companions had also reached the same conclusion regarding us being a week or two too early to witness this spring spectacle . Nevertheless there were odd patches of these distinctive harbingers of late spring, even though the rich carpet of bluebells these woods are renowned for was still largely a mat of bright green leaves. We climbed steadily, passing through some coppiced areas, as these woods are very much managed in the traditional way. We even passed a logging encampment, empty and silent for the weekend break, but no doubt ready to start up again on Monday morning.

Our route through these woods was not the most direct towards Capel, and eventually we changed direction and headed off towards our goal in a north-easterly direction. By this time we had left the woods behind us, and after passing along a narrow country lane, we passed through orchards, descending steadily as we neared our lunchtime watering hole.

Gravity dispense at Dovecote
As mentioned earlier, the cask beer at the Dovecote is served by gravity, and it was here that award-winning local landlord, Richard Allen first developed the system whereby the casks are kept in a temperature-controlled room immediately behind the bar. Extra-long cask taps protrude through the dividing wall, and out through false barrel ends, made out of wood, set into the wall. The result, beer kept at just the right temperature, and served in the most natural way possible – straight from the cask.

Almost a decade ago, Richard moved on to greater things, taking over the equally isolated Halfway House, between the villages of Brenchley and Horsmonden. After completely gutting this former Whitbread pub and carrying out extensive internal alterations, Richard installed the same temperature-controlled, gravity-dispense system at his new pub, but on a much larger scale.
I digress, and returning to the Dovecote, there has also been a recent change of licensee here as well, following the departure of long-serving licensees, Nick and Shelley. The new owners haven’t changed much, sticking with the same award-winning formula. Harvey’s Best and Gales HSB are the regular beers, supplemented by up to three guest ales. On Sunday, these were Caledonian Fool Proof, Mad Cat Pow Wow and a particular favourite beers of mine; Old Dairy Blue Top. Kevin, who was walking with us though, was most disappointed that his favourite beer, HSB was unexpectedly unavailable.  
Three thirsty walkers

The pub was packed, so we sat outside on the semi-covered terrace to the rear of the pub. All four of us started with the Mad Cat beer, which was quite pale in colour and bittered with hops which had an obvious American origin; being citrus-like and quite fruity in flavour. Later most of us moved on to the Old Dairy Blue Top; a 4.8% IPA, if my memory serves me well.

We had planned on a bite to eat at the Dovecote, but as mentioned above the pub was bursting at the seams with two large parties of diners to cater for. It appears that pre-booking is essential for Sunday lunchtime, which kind of spoils the spontaneity, but given the size of the pub is probably inevitable.

We decided to stay for one more, before making tracks for home by means of a more direct route. We passed through the churchyard of the delightful Capel Church, before crossing arable land, and eventually reaching the Five Oak Green Road again. As the path took us right along the side of the George & Dragon, which lies on the B2017 between Five Oak Green and Tudeley, it seemed rude not to pop in for a look.

It’s been quite a few years since I last set foot inside this attractive, white-painted, weather-boarded pub, but I was pleased to discover that not much had changed. We made our way to the saloon bar, which is larger than the public, and was less busy. The George is really an atmospheric old building, complete with low ceilings, massive old beams and an impressive inglenook fireplace. We sat down by the window, glad to take the weight off our feet for a second time that day, but not before ordering a beer each.

George & Dragon, Tudeley
With the choice restricted to Greene King Abbot, or Fuller’s London Pride, the latter was the selection of all four of us. It was well-kept, but not overly special. Still it was nice to sit there observing the goings on in the bar against the backdrop of the view of the fields from the window. The pub has only recently changed hands, so it was good to see it nice and busy. As an added treat, there were hot roast potatoes in dishes on the bar, and these were most welcome seeing as we’d had little else to eat apart from the odd packet of crisps or nuts. Kevin seemed particularly ravenous, perhaps making up for his disappointment at the lack of HSB at the Dovecote. His somewhat over zealous consumption was noticed, however!

Our walk back to Tonbridge took us through the grounds of another church (Tudeley), before walking through a farm with an impressive, and newly built equestrian centre. Eventually we rejoined our outward route and ascended back up towards the grounds of Somerhill House.

Homeward bound
This last leg seemed to take a lot longer than anticipated; probably because we were all a little weary, footsore and stiff. Despite this, and the lack of wall-to-wall bluebells, the walk out and back to these two not often frequented pubs was one of the best I have done for a long time; helped no doubt by the fine weather, the impressive scenery and the companionship of my three fellow walkers.

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